How to take pictures in bright sunlight with a simple tool

| September 13, 2014

umbrellatopright-1You’ve probably taken photos of friends and family out in the direct sun with results that were…let’s just say… not pretty. The deep shadows and patches of pure white with no detail made the photos look harsh and unnatural.

There are several techniques for working around this problem. In this article, I’ll show you an easy, fun, and cheap way to handle even the strongest sunlight so you can take great photos that your trail friends will thank you for.

Hard light and soft light

We’ve all seen those big umbrellas that studio photographers use with their lighting systems. Some of them are made of a thin, white material that allows flashes of light to pass through while softening it at the same time.

Without the umbrella, the flash would produce “hard light” that makes sharp, distinct shadows giving an effect similar to direct sunlight.

The umbrella converts the light into a “soft light” so that instead of an abrupt line between light and dark, the light gradually transitions into shadow.

Hard light can be used to make stunning, dramatic portraits, but this take a lot of skill plus the fine control of studio lights. Outdoors, the effect of hard, direct sunlight is rarely good. Softer light looks more natural and gives a sense of shape to the face.

So, why not learn from the pros and use a shoot-through umbrella to soften the sunlight for outdoor photos?

This idea may seem a little over the top for the casual photographer, but it really isn’t. Small shoot-through umbrellas are lightweight, cheap, and pack into a small space. They weigh as little as 10oz (280g), cost less than $20 USD, and easily tuck into a day pack.

They are also fast and easy to use.

Before and after pictures

Here’s a before-picture of our model, Kaori, standing in the direct sun. As you can see, the harsh light isn’t at all flattering and it wouldn’t make a great Facebook photo.

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It took all of 10 seconds to take out a shoot-through umbrella, open it up, and give it to Kaori to hold so that it blocks the direct sun. As as you can see, the result is much better.

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Now, this is not a pro-quality outdoor portrait, but if your main reason for being outside is to have fun exercising with your friends, it passes the 80:20 rule. It gets you most of the way there, is very quick, and it works for all cameras — even camera phones!

Some additional considerations

If your model holds the umbrella out far enough so it isn’t in the shot, it does create a “selfie arm problem”, so having a third person who can hold it out of the way works best. And if you decide to keep it in, it just becomes a fun photography prop.

You can use a regular rain-style umbrella to block sunlight, but a photographic shoot-through umbrella is better because it still allows some light through and the white won’t affect the color of the light on your model’s face.

As an added bonus, if you’re out where there’s no shade, your umbrella will do double duty as a sun protector. This is not as far-fetched as it seems with our heightened awareness of skin cancer these days. I’ve seen hikers using purpose-made trekking umbrellas while taking breaks from the trail.

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Photo credits: Mark Beresford

Category: Trail Life

Comments (1)

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  1. Chak says:

    Like it! I am going to go and look for the photographic shoot-through umbrella.